The de Beaumont Foundation’s Speaker Series highlights leaders in public health practice, advocacy, policymaking, and other related fields.

For Michele Okoh, JD, people and planet are one and the same. Now a senior lecturing fellow of law at the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, Okoh’s role encompasses her dual passions, advocating for both the health of people and their environments.

“My draw was more toward environmental issues but also social justice issues, and that’s where my career took me,” she told de Beaumont Foundation staff at a recent Speaker Series discussion.

Okoh worked as an attorney at the North Carolina Department of Justice in the environmental section and represented Medicaid in the health and public assistance section before becoming a prosecutor and opening her own legal practice. Whether working in environmental, criminal, disability, or health care law, Okoh has made connections between health equity and where her clients live. For example, the ability to achieve good health is limited for people who are exposed to toxins from a landfill or industrial livestock operation. And such sites are more often located within communities of color and those with less wealth.

“Environmental justice and public health are inextricably linked,” said Okoh, who is pursuing an MPH at George Washington University.

This linkage is reflected in the definition of environmental justice put forth by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

“That aspect is very important — the fair treatment and meaningful involvement — because environmental justice is very much a collaborative process, and community-driven,” Okoh said.

Her vision for environmental justice is centered in building relationships with people who have lived experience and treating them with respect. “Whenever we think about how the environment is impacting the health of communities, we also need to see how communities are already engaged and recognize that communities have their own agency,” Okoh said. “They have their own power. So our job is not to go in and replace that. Our job is not to speak for communities, but to work alongside communities.”

That involves honoring existing community structures and allowing people who have been advocating for environmental justice to lead, Okoh said. She also warned against painting communities with broad strokes, noting, “You’re never in a situation where a community is homogenous. There are different perspectives, different voices.”

Okoh recognizes her position as an attorney from a major university, which means that she may be met with reluctance by communities that have been marginalized and suffered further harm from outside interventions.

“One of the challenges is when we come into a community, we could be in a position where our work could be disempowering,” Okoh said. Therefore, outsiders need to consider how to thoughtfully engage with communities, down to details such as when and where meetings are held and how information is disseminated. And if people appear dispassionate about the work being done, environmental justice advocates should determine why there is a lack of interest.

More funding for public health could bolster environmental justice work, particularly in the ability for health departments to address concerns such as lead exposure and water contamination, Okoh said. But the impact of even seemingly “neutral” policy interventions can be harmful without thoughtful consideration of how they are implemented. “When you have —  like we have — an unequal society, neutral policies will only perpetuate existing disparities, and that’s what we see with environmental justice,” she said.

Further, environmentalists need to balance their priorities with the interests of communities, pushing back against an all-or-nothing dichotomy.

“The protection piece has a lot of times been at tension with environmental justice and public health concerns,” Okoh said, noting that environmental protection can be alienating to some communities. For example, a community may benefit from an industry with a negative environmental impact but that provides local jobs and economic opportunity.

“That tension definitely does exist, and I think the balance needs to come through from us thinking more broadly not just [about] environmental protection, where we see the environment as something that needs to be protected against human beings, but understanding that human beings actually have a relationship with their environment and figuring out how to further those interests,” she said.

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